The Tampa Bay Lightning have their home opener tonight, but all the talk today isn't about the Lightning and their slow start to the season: it's about the exciting renovations to the St. Pete Times Forum that are getting unveiled tonight. The owner of the Lighting, Jeff Vinik, invested $40 million of his own money into the Forum, updating the stadium by adding new seats, improved lighting, updated locker rooms, a full organ, and two Tesla coils that shoot real lightning. The Forum has a whole new look to it.
In anticipation of tonight's opening, Vinik talked with local reporters earlier today and shared some of his thoughts on the new Forum. You can find his full comments over at Lightning Strikes (St. Pete Times), but I found a couple of his comments especially interesting.
On putting $40 million into an arena he doesn't own: "The equation is being a world class organization and customer service and a great environment for hockey games and a great environment for the circus and everything else that comes into our building. This building has great bones but it needed money put into it and it needed to have a soul and it needed to be such that everybody who is in this place knew it was in Tampa Bay, so putting money into the facility is the right thing to do and right for the community and for all our constituencies."
Yes, Vinik payed for the entire $40 million worth of renovations out of his own pocket, and with no intention of having any of it repaid by the county (who actually owns the stadium). That's an incredible show of generosity, and I think it says a great deal about Vinik's commitments to the local community.
But then the reporters had to go and sour the mood by asking this question:
He also jokingly deflected a question about if he is interested in buying the Rays: "Can we get this right first? ... I like (Rays owner) Stu (Sternberg) and I have a lot of respect for them. I think they've had a tremendous season on the field. I like Stu a lot and I think they'll do the right things. All our focus here is on hockey and this building."
I know that it's now the "cool thing" to hate on Stu Sternberg and to call him cheap, but this is a serious case of short-term memory. When Stu took over the Rays back in 2006, he invested a large portion of his own money in refurbishing the Trop -- $35 million, in fact.* He didn't own the Trop any more than Vinik owns the Forum, yet he put the necessary money into the stadium to upgrade the lighting, make the hallways less like dungeons, add some family-friendly areas, and add a Rays tank in the outfield.
Striking similarities between the two situations, huh? And that's not to mention the improvements that have happened in the Trop over the past couple offseasons -- including new turf last year -- or the fact that Sternberg offered free parking for multiple seasons. Yet after five seasons of investing money in the team, stadium, and local area, Sternberg has become the local scapegoat while Vinik is the apple in everyone's eye.
I don't mean to take away from anything Vinik has done; investing that much money in the local community is always admirable, and from all reports, the renovations look amazing. But I just think people should remember that what he's done to the Forum isn't unprecedented, nor is he the first to do it.
*Thanks to @m_weber for pointing out that there's lots of uncertainty about how much Stu actually invested in renovating the Trop. Some sources list $10 million, others list $22-25 million, and others list $35 million. In retrospect, the most reliable answer seems to be in the middle: the $22-25 million range, as was reported by Jonah Keri in "The Extra 2%".